Lane Metro Partnership Can Now Switch Gears

Le roi est mort, vive le roi!

The French first uttered the phrase is 1422, but it migrated to English-speaking countries after the French Revolution. “The king is dead, long live the king!” In other words, the death of one king must be conjoined with the rise of the next king. Kings may live and die, but the kingdom must continue.

And so it is with Jack Roberts and his departure from Lane Metro Partnership. “The director of Lane Metro Partnership has left, long live Lane Metro Partnership!” (Maybe that would sound better in French.)

Roberts directed the economic development and employer recruiting service for over a decade, earning an outsize reputation for Lane County across the region. In his time, he landed some big fish. For example, Royal Caribbean Cruises announced this week they’ll be adding a couple hundred jobs to their telemarketing workforce in Springfield.

A decade is a long time — especially this past decade, and especially for Lane County. Ten years ago, we were mired in a local 30-year recession. Any jobs were better than no jobs. Track Town was mostly a pizza brand, prostitution was downtown Springfield’s most prominent growth industry, Eugene loved its quarterback for his piano prowess, and highway signs still directed drivers to the Downtown Mall.

Lane life is different now. We’re still lagging behind median wage statistics and other economic curves, but those curves at close range no longer remind us of an Eight Ball.

Thanks to the Ducks, as well as the continuing successes of the Oregon Bach Festival, Oregon Country Fair, the Shedd and others, Eugene is now on many people’s radar as a destination. The quiet, steady growth of the airport makes the destination easier to reach from more places. Tenacious progress on trains — passenger and cargo — also helps.

We’re not the beggars we were when Roberts took what he had to know would be a thankless job in 2003. (As usual, he would have been right about that.) We can be choosers for the industries and employers we’d most like to attract. Roberts’ departure gives us an important opportunity to hit the reset button.

Foremost, we are not Anyplace, USA. Many large employers site their growth as auctioneers, watching communities bid up incentives to get their development. That used to be us.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t use incentives, but they should demonstrate good faith — not desperation.

We have a lot to offer: the state’s flagship research university, plus four other colleges, including a newly aggressive community college. Our minimum wage is high and our housing costs are moderate, so more of our citizens have money in their pocket. Transportation burdens are light and alternatives are abundant, saving residents both money and time. Soon we’ll have one of the country’s best health care exchanges, thanks to a governor who is part emergency room doctor, part governmental policy wonk.

Mega-corporations say they value quality of life, but their expansion plans boil down to a building, a manager and a line item on a spreadsheet. Small business owner-operators — people ready to hire a dozen people with specific skills if they can find the right location — should get more of our attention.

Many of these future CEOs are already visiting Eugene. Imagine signs at Hayward or Autzen: “If you brought your company here, you’d be home by now.”

It sounds trivial, but our lack of a sales tax and minimal business licensing are especially attractive to these small business owners. Someone asked Ken Kesey why he never left Pleasant Hill, when he and his typewriter could go anywhere. With his aw-shucks understatement that he reserved only for his neighbors, he replied, “In Oregon, I can still build a 12×16 shed on my property without asking anyone’s permission.” For Kesey and others, that’s often enough.

As Lane Metro Partnership retools for its post-Roberts era, it must develop metrics to ensure that the next director’s time is weighted further toward the smaller businesses that won’t grab headlines, but will bring and grow jobs for our community.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.